I have long heard of this magical elixir, but I’ve never tasted it.
Maybe that day is coming soon — I hope!
LOUISE, Miss. — Hoover Lee’s small batch honey-brown Mississippi Delta marinade imparts a flavor that reflects its maker — a dash of the Deep South with nuanced notes of Asia.
“My main thing was trying to get a sauce that tasted like roasted Cantonese duck — that type of taste,” the 73-year-old native of China says in a booming baritone with a distinctively Southern cadence.
And that blending of cultures has proved hugely popular, despite Lee’s unwillingness to market by more than word of mouth.
It’s also putting this fading farm town of about 300 people on the culinary map. Recipes and stories featuring the sauce have appeared in regional newspapers and magazines, and Southern Living magazine recently named it an editors’ pick.
“It’s surprising to me that it’s beginning to move fast,” says Lee, who has been concocting the sauce from a secret recipe and selling it out of his Lee Hong Co. general store since the early 1980s. “In the past I’ve just been dealing with local people.”
Now he even gets recognized on the street 1 1/2 hours away in Jackson.
“‘That’s Mr. Hoover, the Hoover Sauce man,'” Lee says he often overhears people say. “It was just a hobby that turned into a working hobby now. I’ve just been blessed.”
Salty and sweet
Hoover Sauce blends the saltiness of soy sauce with the sweetness of, well … Lee won’t say. Whatever it is, it works magic with chicken and baby back ribs, and he says people drive for miles to get it.
Though he has yet to sell Hoover Sauce online, Lee increasingly finds himself packing up jugs of it to ship to customers around the country and beyond. He’s sent it as far west as Hawaii and as far east as France.
“You know, the guy could make a damn fortune if he’d market it,” says Billy Ray Adams, a Hoover Sauce customer who uses it on steak, ribs, hamburgers, wings, pork, venison sausage and nearly anything else.
Lee seems about as versatile as his sauce. In a region not known for prosperity or for a tolerance for minorities in the past, he not only has run a successful business in a town where few remain, he also served as the community’s mayor and an alderman for many years.
Lee was born in 1933 in the Canton region of China, but less than a year later he and his family moved to Mississippi, where his father had run a store since 1917. Tensions between China and Japan prompted the return to the U.S.
Running the store
After a stint in the Army and graduation with a business degree from Mississippi State University, Lee returned to Louise at his father’s request to take over the family store. He decided to honor his parents after his brothers declined to return to Louise.
“I said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll come back here for five years. I’ll run it for five years,'” Lee says. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Today, the store is one of the few remaining businesses in Louise. Several Chinese families carved out lives in the area as storeowners, but most have since moved on. The Lees stayed, saying they found a greater acceptance than others in the Delta.
Lee gave the store to his sons in 1997, but the Hoover Sauce hasn’t let him slow down. Not only won’t he say what’s in it, he makes it himself and hesitates to even show outsiders the room where he mixes it.
“Visualize,” he says. “I have a line of mixers, which I use to blend basically soy sauce plus a sweetener and other spices.”
Even his wife must mostly visualize. She’s not allowed to help make it.
“No, I just have to clean the pots and the pans,” the 70-year-old said. “He loves it. He does it all himself. I can’t even fuss about the area. He keeps it a mess, but I clean up behind him.”
Lee became interested in cooking watching his mother and sisters, and the men who cooked stir-fry at parties held by the area’s Chinese families. He began his search for the right sauce after sampling several uneven attempts at Cantonese duck.
“Some would hit the mark and some wouldn’t,” Lee said.
He refined his sauce during the 1970s, when he first got into local politics and often found himself cooking for volunteer firefighters and church gatherings. Only later, after many requests from fans, did he consider selling it.
Today, he sells it in quart-size glass canning jars and large plastic jugs for $6.95 a quart or $21.50 a gallon. He sells enough to keep him busy, but doesn’t track exactly how much he moves in a year.
The sauce draws folks such as Alan Holditch, of Jackson. Holditch mixes the marinade with honey, then spreads it on steaks while grilling. He stocks up every few months, when his job takes him to Louise.
“I’ll stop and get a gallon,” Holditch says. “We’ve got so many friends that use it, it doesn’t take me long to get rid of a gallon. Once every three or four months I’ll have to get another gallon.”
If you can’t get down to Louise, Miss., to get a jar of Hoover Lee’s sweet and salty Hoover Sauce, he suggests making a similar marinade out of bottled hoisin sauce (check the grocer’s Asian section), onion powder, minced fresh garlic and chopped fresh cilantro.
Hoover’s Chicken Drummettes
Start to finish: 40 minutes
3 pounds chicken wings
2 cups Hoover Sauce (or similar sweet-and-salty marinade)
2 cups cold water
1 cup ketchup
1 teaspoon yellow mustard powder (more or less to taste)
Place the chicken wings in a large stockpot. Add the Hoover Sauce or other marinade and cold water. If the liquid doesn’t completely cover the chicken, add more water. Bring the chicken to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 12 minutes. Remove the chicken, drain well and discard the liquid.
While the chicken simmers, make the dipping sauce. In a small bowl, whisk together the ketchup and mustard powder. Set aside.
In a large, deep skillet, heat 1 inch of oil over medium heat until it reaches about 350 degrees. Carefully add the chicken in a single layer (you may need to cook in batches) and fry until just starting to brown, turning for even cooking, about 4 minutes.
Remove the chicken and drain on paper towels. Serve with dipping sauce.
— Recipe from Hoover Lee, maker of Hoover Sauce in Louise, Miss.